Thinking on the Legacy of the Australian Church @ CONNECT17

At the moment, I’m too busy to think! I’m preparing for my graduation ceremonies, and a theology and disability conference… and of course, marking! So I thought I’d just post up my address to the Christian Media & The Arts Australia (CMAA) conference called CONNECT17. Honestly, I wish I had more time to just sit and talk with people, as many of Australia’s leaders were gathered together to think about the future. I was honoured to share the stage with my sister and Kabi Kabi, Gureng Gureng, and Torres Strait Islander woman, Larissa Minnieconn.

Larissa pioneered the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanderjustice team at Common Grace, where I was honoured to serve along side her. She is involved in a number of initiatives regarding globally Indigenous Christians, and she works at the Native Title Tribunal.

We spoke in the plenary midday sessions on Thursday, and then on the panel with Christian author Sheridan Voysey and Social Futurist Mal Fletcher.

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As we did this morning, I want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, and their elders past, present and future.

I do this because the Bible in Romans 13 says to give honour where honour is due.

Today I’ll start with a phrase that shouldn’t feel “foreign” to any Sydneysider in the room.

It’s Gi Walawa Nulawala.

You can say it now.

This is a welcome phrase that means “stop and rest here a while” in the Dharug language. And I hope that we can indeed stop here and rest a while to imagine the legacy that one Australian generation could pass on to the next.

But who is the Dharug nation, you might ask? This is the language of the Australian nation in Sydney that stretches from the lower North Shore over to Parramatta through most of the Hills District.

It is the language of the land on which I lived with my family for eighteen years.

I learned a lot of things growing up. I learned about cockatoos that screeched across the blue sky above our house. I learned where to find the waterfalls that ran down the sandstone cliffs in the bush behind our house.

And yet, I had never heard of the Dharug people. I had never heard any of the languages that had been spoken on the land under my house for thousands of years.

The history of Australia and its peoples shouldn’t be kept like a dirty secret.

Some of you will have already heard my story, and how I was praying to God sitting upon a tree that looked very much like this one, when trying to decide if I should undertake a PhD. This led to a five-year journey. I was advised to get a topic that wouldn’t bore me no matter how long I had to study it.

And I found that listening to God speak through the land I was born on, and the people of that land could never bore me.

But now that I’ve finished this project, I do ask myself why? Why was I so interested?

Perhaps it’s because if I could describe my family’s connection to land, it would be with one simple phrase: “Eden Lost.” Let me explain.

When it comes to legacy, the first thing I think of is my only living grandparent, Bettie Sheila Miller.

We call Bettie “the Matriarch” and she really is kind of like the Queen in our family. She doesn’t really like to smile in photographs.

After World War II, at the age of eighteen, Bettie met a kind (and rather eccentric man) called Eric Miller. Eric was a scientist at the CSIRO, and they both met Jesus well into their sixties.

Before that though, Eric liked to hit the Bondi pubs at closing time, and he had a pet carpetsnake he’d take to the bar in order to make sure he got his drinks order in before the final round each Friday.

Grandma is the keeper of the tales of Eric. She is a detective at heart, and her hero is Sherlock Holmes. Half her descendents have gone into the sciences, and half into the Arts, and Bettie keeps pace in conversation on both sides.

But her life didn’t start out with the kind of hope and joy that she carries now. In fact, she believed for much of her life that she was left as a baby on the church doorstep. And she had no idea who her family was. Bettie spent her first fifteen years in and out of foster care and like many children in the system she was badly abused.

It wasn’t until one of my cousins organized a DNA kit that we found out her ancestry.

Which was also the day I learned my heritage, through an SBS article.

It turns out, both Bettie and Eric had Welsh heritage. And Bettie has a little bit of Belgian in there too – and 2% South East Asian that nobody really knows what to do with.

I don’t think I’m alone in having this kind of a story. Many Australians have lost connection to their ancestry beyond their living memory.

But, when you actually find your missing heritage, it makes you think about the pieces of your identity, OR who you think you are… and find yourself asking, is this 8% Belgian why I have such a deep affinity to waffles?

We are a nation of immigrants. Currently, about a quarter of us have a parent who was born overseas. By 2050, it is expected to be about a third. And, of course, the Aussie way is to fit in as soon as possible.

This leaves Australians today unable to point to the land from which they came, or even where they find a meaningful connection.

There are few cultural rituals in Australia that last any longer than one or two generations. While my Italian friends can recognize a great pizza, the truth is, we discourage them from other languages, and we tell them to forget their homelands.
But land is very significant in the Bible. Genealogies are written out in fine detail. And knowing that God was born as little Jewish baby on the edges of the Roman Empire, should say something to us about the way God chooses to reveal truth.

So, in my PhD research, I wanted to know for myself whether Jesus was similarly turning up on the edges of Australian cities. Was He where society least expected Him to be found – and indeed He was.

My research took me to three Australian cities, in order to interview 88 people attending churches with Aboriginal senior pastors. I wanted find out what God was doing through these leaders in our nation, and I found out that they had some amazing insights to share.

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I learned that the different Australian nations cross our continent just like in Europe. I found that Aboriginal peoples from the mainland share much culture, while Torres Strait Islanders are honoured as a distinct group.

But most of my PhD education has actually been an unlearning. For example, when I began my program I believed that the most intelligent person in the room is the one that speaks the most, and the loudest. But I quickly learned that leadership doesn’t always present in skinny jeans and with a latte.

That’s not to say, however, that Bundjalung leaders such as Pastor Will Dumas from Ganggalah Church wouldn’t wear skinny jeans and hold a latte.

But I had to unlearn some of the things that I had been taught by the media about who Aboriginal people were, and what they contributed to our nation.

The most important astounding was that the Australian Bureau of Statistics report that 73% of our Australian Aboriginal population self-identify as Christian, although many would have mixed feeling towards the church, and the missions. 98% of Torres Strait Islanders self-identify with Christianity.

I suspect that our generation will have to unlearn many things in order to participate in building an Australian story that is greater than the one that we have at the moment.

There are two very important things that I unlearned and I believe are crucial to understanding what God is doing in Australia.

  1. I had to unlearn all of my Christian foyer conversations.

You know, the one where you’re trying to get past the person and into your seat before pre-roll ends and you can join the worship song?

Or the one where you say “it’s nice to see you” and you mean exactly that. “It’s nice to SEE you today?

After a couple of emails with Pastor Will and Sandra Dumas from Ganggalah, I turned up in The Tweed, and the very first thing that I was taught was “to yarn.”

“Yarn” is the Aboriginal lingo word for conversation.

I had to relearn how to have a conversation.

Some Aboriginal leaders say that there is nothing really unusual about yarning, which might be true, but I haven’t had a church leader organize eighteen hours of conversation for me before.

What I learned in those yarns is that the stories that we tell about ourselves are the ones that we end up believing.

And the stories I was telling about Australia weren’t old enough. They weren’t vivid enough. And they weren’t always completely true. They were the stories that I was telling to help me survive until I found Eden again — in my next life.

 

2) I had to unlearn what I knew about Australia, and I had to be welcomed into my own nation.

 We have been selling a message that church is a really important place to be on weekends. But these Australian Christians welcomed me into the land that I had been living on for all these years.

Suddenly, it became clear that God considers land very important.

There are many Christians who believe strange things about Welcome to Country. Some refuse to be present when it is performed. I know people who have pulled their kids out of public school over Acknowledgement.

But for me, a girl who has no memory of anything further back than a little house in Epping, Sydney, what welcome means to me is that we can start to live the kingdom of God now, in Australia. Not when we get to heaven. It means that we can include land in our telling of the gospel story.

The biblical scholar N.T. Wright comments upon how often humans fall short of their potential. He says this:

“Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection.
Made for joy, we settle for pleasure.
Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance.
Made for relationship, we insist on our own way.
Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment.

But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world … quite simply… what it means to be Christian [is] to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.”

The earth and all of the people within it are a part of God’s new world.

When I was invited to address this conference, I said yes because I knew that in this room were the story-tellers of our nation.

The stories we are telling are more about selling than they are about telling.

They are tweetable, they are simple, but they aren’t life-changing. They are behavior changing.

So, I stand here before you a movement of storytellers, and I ask, what stories are you telling about Australia?

But even more importantly I ask

WHAT IS THE STORY GOD IS WRITING IN AUSTRALIA?

And I think maybe that we have to be willing to listen to hear God’s story.

Which is why I asked one of the most inspiring young Australian Christian leaders to join with me here today in imagining a legacy for our generation.

Because the story that I believe God wants us to tell is of togetherness.

It takes into account all the ways that we have profited from the history of our nation, and it seeks true justice.

Larissa Minnieconn has been proven in the secret place of worship, and in prayer and has a deep understanding of Jesus.

The Bible suggests that we are living epistles, transcribed with the glory of God, so that all who read us can see. And the letter Larissa is writing is one of pure grace, and courage.

And if I on my deathbed am only known for amplifying the Australian voices found around us, then I will know in my heart that I told the truth about our nation. And that is a legacy I would be entirely proud of leaving for the next generation.

 

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Dr. Tanya Riches and Larissa Minnieconn. Photo credit – Rachel Chow

 

 

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